Crying, Lady Claire knelt before the small prayer shrine in her room. The icy hardness of the stone floor pressed against her knees, but she wasnt aware of it. Her bowed head, her tear-dampened cheeks and the slump of her shoulders revealed the profound despair that she felt inside, despair colder and heavier than the unyielding stone. Her elbows rested heavily on the platform where a graceful marble statue of the Holy Mother stood. The simple shrine was uncluttered by the usual religious trinkets, but the perfect mirror image of the white Madonna reflected in the highly polished cherry wood surface in front of Lady Claire.
Some unknown but gifted artist had given the saintly icon a remarkably lifelike, kindly, youthful and compassionate face. He had skillfully chiseled each softly flowing fold of the Heavenly Ladys garments. The exquisite sculpture had been a wedding gift. Lady Claire couldnt recall the name of the person who had presented it to her, but that didnt diminish her gratitude for the gift and the comfort it had brought to her over the years. Without a doubt, it was her most precious possession. Not much light came into the room at that late hour. The pure white marble caught what little remained. Like the high peak of a snow-covered mountain against a darkened sky, it contrasted starkly with its dim surroundings.
Her bedchamber window faced north. The evening sun didnt add much to the light of the one small candle that she had placed on the mantle when she entered. The candles tiny flame wavered uncertainly in the growing shadows. The fireplace below the mantle was dark. Its hearth was as cold as the floor. That evening, Lady Claire didnt want servants to disturb her by coming in and out constantly to fuss with the fire, so she chose to do without its warmth.
Her long-sleeved brown velvet gown with layers and layers of underskirts would keep out the autumn chill seeping through the stone walls as freely as water through a sieve. Those massive walls could hold back fire and water and arrows, but they couldnt stop the onslaught of cold air from outside. Often, she could feel the draft writhing around her ankles as it crept silently on its way through the castle. That miserable chill would have defeated the heat of the crackling fire even if it had been burning.
She had retired to her room to be alone. The need to be alone frequently drew her to that quiet place. There, she sought strength and courage to endure in spite of overwhelming distress. Lady Claire found little peace of mind and soul elsewhere. Peace was indeed rare; happiness was an even more unique experience for her. She thought briefly but could not recall the last time she felt truly happy. What had been the cause of that joyous instant? Tears, fallen since then, had drowned the sweet memory. The exhausting march of miserable days had since ground it into powder, as grain is crushed under the weight of a millstone, and it had blown away down the corridors of sorrow where her dreams had vanished. Tears momentarily blurred her vision before they fell in diamond-like drops beside the Virgins feet.
One person made her wretched life worth the daily struggle, but that beloved person would leave soon and travel north to a much more pleasant home than Castle Downing. Grief associated with that impending departure had brought on her current explosion of sadness. Grief had driven Lady Claire to isolate herself that evening. She felt as though her heart would break under the weight of its burden. The anticipation of losing her dear child was almost more than she could bear.
Although Lady Claire usually knelt before the statue when she came to her bedchamber for solitude, she rarely prayed to the Blessed Mother of Christ. Neither did she pray to God. Instead, she spoke to her dead sister, Lady Anne. The subject of her one-sided conversation was always Lady Annes daughter, Jennifer. In life, Anne and Claire had shared the role of mother to the girl. Lady Claire believed that, even in death, her sister was concerned about Jennifers welfare and happiness.
"Anne, I hate Castle Downing," Lady Claire sobbed quietly, her voice just above a whisper. "If Satan left his chaotic domain to live on Earth, he would probably choose Castle Downing for his new home. Once he arrived with his sinister attendants, the Evil One would surely call Lord Anthony to become his first loyal disciple." She buried her tearful face in her hands. "If only I could flee with Jennifer when she goes north, dearest Anne! If only we could go together, I would never return to this awful place!"
Rudely intruding into her private space, her husband, Lord Anthony, abruptly but quietly entered the room without knocking. He didnt care that Lady Claires bedchamber was her sanctuary. He wasnt concerned that he was invading her favorite secluded retreat from the world. He was as much the lord and master of his wife as he was lord and master of the rest of Castle Downing and the people who lived and worked in his domain. No part of either the woman or the estate was outside his boundaries. Everything that happened in and around his territory interested him. Nothing was too private for his eyes and ears, so he watched without embarrassment and listened without hesitation.
His brows lowered. He hated her tearful outpourings. This wasnt the first time he had caught the woman making such a disgusting display of giving in to her emotions. Her weakness revolted him. He had no patience with frailty of the body or of the spirit, but then his wife had never shown the slightest hint of self-control. How could he possibly respect a person as impotent as this female? His lips curled in the manner of a man who had just bitten into the softly bitter flesh of a slug. Look at her, he thought. There she is kneeling like a servant. Look at her weeping senselessly before the absurd statue ofwhat else?another woman!
Lady Claire had no idea that her husband had slipped into the room. Since she had not expected visitors, she hadnt taken precautions against them. Her door was closed, but she hadnt locked it. Focused on her gloomy monologue, she spoke aloud but in muffled tones. She paid no attention to anything around her. All she knew or felt was the grinding painful sorrow in her heart. The slow, deliberate rhythm of her words went on, disturbed only by frequent sobs.
When she shared her thoughts with her deceased sister, she never imagined that Anne would reply audibly. Regardless, she truly believed that Lady Anne could hear from her heavenly mansion. She was convinced that death was just a physical separation. Anne may be no longer present in the flesh, but she was there in spirit. To Lady Claire, she was an accessible, living and conscious being, just as she had been before her death.
"You know, my dear Anne, that Jennifer is now old enough to wed. It seems too soon! Wasnt she a little girl just yesterday? She has hardly reached the fullness of womanhood! I must admit, though, she is not any younger than I was at the time of my marriage to Lord Anthony. How closely she resembles you when you were sixteen years of age, Sister! She has your golden hair and your silken complexion, but her deep blue eyes are like her fathers. She is pure and innocent. With her kind and pleasant nature, she is a joy to all who know her. Your child is precious to me, Anne, as precious as she is to you. She," the words squeezed past a sob that clutched at her throat, "is the greatest treasure of my life!"
Overcome, Lady Claire paused. She held her words until the wrenching pain of her grief subsided enough for her to continue. "She looks forward eagerly to the wedding that will separate us. I know that her life must go ahead, and I will do nothing to discourage her or to hold her back. I shall miss her so terribly," a hot tear trickled down her cold cheek while a deep shuddering sigh escaped her tight chest. "It is unlikely that my husband will let me visit her at Castle Percival, and once she leaves here she probably will not desire to return. Who can blame her for that? If I had the choice, my dearest Anne, you know that I would do the same. The way it is, though, I may never see her again! Whatever shall I do without her?" Lady Claire shook her head slowly at the bewildering thought. "When you died, half of the goodness in my life died with you. Jennifer is the only good I have left here in this wretched place! When she is gone, what shall remain for me? Nothing. Nothing but the unwelcome embraces of Lord "
She stopped immediately when she sensed the presence of someone else in the room. Turning quickly, she came face-to-face with the intense anger glowing like Hell-fire in Lord Anthonys eyes! Terror replaced grief! The statue of the Holy Mother crashed to the floor when Lady Claires trembling fingers clutched the wooden platform for support. Fear locked a scream in her throat. Her heart pounded against her ribs, and her breath quickened as adrenalin flooded her body. Hurried along by her racing heart, the drug rapidly pulsed through her. It stimulated every nerve. She trembled uncontrollably, and her physical response accelerated her rising panic.
Imposing and dominating, Lord Anthony strode across the room to his wife. Only a few steps covered the distance between them. He grasped her elbow and roughly dragged her to her feet. She tensed, but she didnt try to pull away from him. Instead, she turned her head aside and looked down at the floor to avoid his terrible gaze. Even with her eyes averted, she could still sense him staring at her with those powerful, translucent, hazel hypnotically leonine eyes where the light of Evil seemed to burn.
"Oh, no, Wife! You will look at me," he insisted. He forced her to turn and confront his formidable hostility.
Lady Claire gasped when she saw her husbands full-blown rage. His wrath devastated her as it always did. Years of experience with his vile temper had conditioned her to submit to his will at once, without a struggle. Resisting was useless. Defying him was not worth the risk of even more horrible consequences. The palpable brutish power of his hand and the withering potency of his fury left her feeling faint and helpless.
"You brainless woman! I have commanded you never to mention that Jennifer is your sisters child," he growled. His baritone voice came from deep inside his chest. Drumlike, it resonated through the quiet room. "I issue orders once and only one time, and I expect unconditional obedience! What is the matter with you? You may be the mistress of this castle, but does that give you the right to take liberties? Do you feel that as my wife you can choose to ignore my commands? Do you presume the right to exempt yourself when my wishes inconvenience you? Have you lost your senses? Perhaps," he said menacingly, "I didnt reinforce my demands enough for you to remember."
She remembered all too well the fierce beating that he had administered as reinforcement. Desperately, her eyes begged for mercy from a man who had no understanding of mercy, for forgiveness from a man who didnt know the meaning of the word. She shook her head and implored, "No, My Lord Husband. Please, I " She tried to subdue her quivering voice, and she assumed an even more humble posture while she said pitifully, "Please, accept my sincere apology. I did not mean to be indiscrete. I swear that I never meant to disobey you! I will never allow myselfthis will never happen again!" She sobbed uncontrollably. "I promise you, Lord Husband "
Lord Anthony interrupted her stammering. He pulled her face close to his and said viciously, "Cease your chattering, fool! Why should I trust you? Why should I take the word of a liar as truth?"
Lady Claire squelched a sob and replied incredulously, "Liar? What do you mean?"
"You are a liar, you and your sister. For years, you convinced me that Lady Annes bastard child was mine," he hissed. "You cleverly faked pregnancy, but all the time Lady Anne was the one who was carrying another mans baby! With my own funds, I paid the cursed midwife who came here to help you deceive me. She is as much to blame as you and your sister. Like you, she plotted against me by declaring falsely that you had delivered a daughter. And what did Lady Anne do? Behind my back, she laughed at me for being such a fool! I hated her for that! Her death has not diminished the malice that I feel toward her!"
"You are mistaken, Lord Husband! No one thought that you were a fool. Anne never laughed at you," she protested. "We did not intend to hurt you or to make you look foolish "
Lord Anthony shouted, "Silence!" He backhanded her smartly. "The original plot wasnt enough for you, was it? Once again, you want to ridicule me. You would ruin me by making the secret of our daughters birth public knowledge now! You wont be satisfied until you make the entire world see me as an idiot!"
Her cheek throbbed from the bruising force of the unchecked blow. She desperately wanted to draw his thoughts away from Lady Anne and the offenses of the past. Neither time nor death had soothed his anger against the sisters. If she could, it would be better to focus his anger on the present and not on what she and Anne had done in the past. She abased herself even more.
"My Lord Husband," she said humbly, "I know that you are not a fool. No. I am the idiot! I admit my stupid error of moments ago, but was I trying to hurt you? Certainly not! You know I would never do such a thing. Before you came through that door, I was alone. Being by myself, here in my own bedchamber, I trusted that no living person would overhear what I was saying to my sister. I was wrong, and I have no excuse for my thoughtless blunder. Yes! I admit that I made a terrible mistake, but the Holy Mother herself stands as a witness that I did not mean to cause trouble."
Lord Anthony kicked the severed head of the statue across the room and jeered, "The broken shards of your precious Holy Mother lie scattered around my feet! No sound comes from her mouth. She makes no gesture to verify your statements. What a fine witness she is! You have called upon a mute stone idol to back up your promises, and your promises are as worthless as this shattered hunk of marble!" Irreverently, he crushed the pieces with the sole of his boot.
Eyes wide, Lady Claire gasped. He had dared to profane the Mother of her God! Being a sincere nonbeliever was forgivable in the eyes of the Almighty, but actively abusing a sacred image was a deadly sin! Never would she have found the courage to commit such an outrageous act of defiance against the Holy!
Lord Anthony had no such scruples.
"Woman, this castle has more than its share of overly curious servants," he said. "I doubt the loyalty of many of them. Unfortunately, they could cause havoc if they gave that information to the right people. They could do irreparable damage to me. Soon, it will be time for her marriage to the young Lord Percival. The Percival family has a respected heritage. The name suggests great power and wealthand influence. An alliance with them though this marriage will strengthen me! You know how hard Ive worked to arrange this union, and I wont let your stupidity cause me humiliation or give them an excuse to nullify the marriage contract."
She agreed with what he said regarding both the servants and the Percivals. It was almost impossible to keep secrets, and once they leaked out the gossip ran faster through the servants quarters than fire through a dry forest on a windy day. As for the Percivals, who could deny that Lord Anthony would benefit from a bond with them? The only better arrangement would be with the royal family.
"Such a fantastic coup this will be for me," he said. Then, he shook her violently. "Do you suppose that the grand Percivals would accept a sluts girl as a wife for their eldest son? Hardly! Jennifers parentage creates a problem, however, only if they discover it before the ceremony. That will change once the marriage is consummated. Then, they will keep the secret to avoid bringing scandal down on themselves and their proud family name." He paused to consider his options before deciding what to do.
His wife recognized the look. She knew her husbands thought patterns well, but she realized few benefits from her knowledge. Understanding him often warned her of his black moods in advance. It never saved her from his cruelty. She could see that he was coldly assessing the situation and formulating a plan, but she kept her thoughts to herself. How ruthless the horrid Lord Anthony of Castle Downing could be! Lady Claire wryly admitted to herself that no bizarre plan conceived by him would surprise her.
Not really expecting to escape the consequences of his anger, she pleaded, "Lord Anthony, my husband, I promise with all my soul that I will keep silent regarding Jennifer and Anne. Lord and Lady Percival were once my closest friends. I approve of this marriage as much as you do, but for different reasons. I am looking forward to her happiness. It means everything to me. I vow on the Sacred Name of the Son of the Almighty God that I will not do anything to prevent their joining!"
From his lack of response, it seemed that he hadnt heard. She, of course, knew better. He didnt miss much. She sighed. The sincere oath would have meant nothing to him even if he had given it his full attention. She had never been able to affect his decisions. Only those few people willing and able to promote his own selfish interests could hope to influence her husband, and she wasnt among those treasured individuals. Those who failed to conform to his rigid notions of importance were worthless in his eyes. She had no illusions regarding her placement in the latter category.
For a long time, she used to wonder why he allowed Jennifer and Lady Anne to stay at Castle Downing after he discovered that Jennifer wasnt his daughter. Accepting the mother and daughter seemed an odd thing for such man to do. He had explained his motive more than once to her. Since he had no children of his own, he tolerated the girl so that he could use her to forge another link in the chain of his success by marrying her into a respected family when she was older.
He had permitted Anne to live there, too. That way, he could prevent her from speaking to anyone outside their enclave. To back up his demands, he threatened to keep Lady Anne away from Jennifer forever if she dared to expose the truth to outsiders. She was forced to choose between isolation from the worldher friends, her family, the life she might have enjoyed elsewherethat and separation from her baby. Jennifer was about eight years old when Lord Anthony discovered what the sisters had done. Lady Anne would have gone insane if Lord Anthony had made her leave the child. Instead, she agreed to a lifetime of self-enforced social imprisonment at Castle Downing. She faithfully kept that awful bargain until she died at a tragically early age and was entombed in the hate-tainted soil of the castle grounds a week after Jennifers eleventh birthday. Her part in the conspiracy was over. So was her life in that hellish place. How often had Lady Claire envied her sisters freedom from Castle Downing? Often, but never without a twinge of guilt seeded by the belief that wishing oneself dead was a sin.
Lord Anthony was talented as a strategist. No one could dispute that claim. His methods were unconventional under the current code of conduct, but they did consistently achieve his goals. He was clever, and he could manipulate people to get exactly what he wanted from them. The man had no conscience. He had no sense of either ethics or honor. He didnt feel empathy. He had no motivation to control his sociopathic impulses, and he wouldnt tolerate anything or anyone that interfered with him. He could fake gentleness or generosity; however, behind the decency of the mask lurked an empty being, one who could neither comprehend nor appreciate the devastation he brought to others.
Lord Anthonys personal qualities had brought him astonishing material success, but his incomplete fractured spirit lacked some basic human element. Was it that part of a mans soul that senses hurt as others of his kind experience it? Was it the part that feels empathy for his fellow human beings? Was it the ability to acknowledge or even to comprehend the pain that his actions would heap on others? Lady Claire could feel that emptiness in her husband, but she doubted that he was aware of it.
Behind that emptiness was the sharp mind of an extreme sociopath. Most humans are born with an archetypal inner barrier. It predates religious and civil laws. Like the universal figures and symbols of the dream world, it dwells deep in the human psyche where it acts as a natural limit on the mental and physical brutality that an individual will inflict on members of his own species. Lord Anthonys cruelty recognized no such limits, no such boundaries or natural barriers.
Lady Claire knew all that as she begged, "Lord Husband, I plead with you to dismiss me without punishment this time. I will go directly to the west tower for my usual evening stroll around the outer walkway. Please, My Lord, forgive my rash behavior."
The abandoned west tower, like her bedchamber, was a place of solitude for that unhappy woman. How she treasured the lofty pinnacle where she could escape the prying eyes of the servants and her husbands unpleasantness! Away from the people and activities of Castle Downing, she could lose herself in dreamseven if it were for only a few short moments. There, she dreamt of distant lands beyond the wooded hills and across the churning sea. Lady Claire had never sailed the open sea, but she knew that other people did. She often wondered how it would be to traverse its restless waters to some exotic port, perhaps a golden city far, far away. What a lovely dream that was!
As a small child, Jennifer had circled the tower with her and shared the fantasies. It was easy for them to imagine that the castle was a mighty ship when thick fog covered all the familiar details of the terrain. Sometimes, it crept up the high stone walls like waves slipping up the hull of a tall-masted sailing vessel. On those days, the tops of distant trees penetrated the fluff and looked very much like the dark sails of pirate ships. It took little effort to imagine that the summits of scattered knolls peaking above the mist were islands that rose above an oceans froth. She and Jennifer had concocted some fine adventures up there on the tower when Jennifer was little, but the girl had outgrown her enjoyment of such simple pleasures. Oh, what glorious days those were! Perhaps it had been that long since Lady Claire had last felt happy. Well, those times had faded into memory as the girl grew to a young woman.
Annes daughter was, indeed, a sophisticated young lady. She had lost the taste for magic and mystery and wonder, which are vital to an uninhibited imagination. Even before Lady Annes death, she had matured beyond her years. Was it any surprise? She had no friends or peers who were her own age. There were no other children to act as her playmates at Castle Downing, so she naturally spent time with adults and, just as naturally, adopted the interests and attitudes of her models, those adults of her limited social world.
Part of Lady Claire regretted that Jennifer had no siblings, but part of her was glad. She feared that any child fathered by Lord Anthony would turn out like him, and she couldnt have borne the guilt of bringing another evil being like her husband into the world. She was naïve. The poor lady mistakenly believed that her husband was a unique specimen among men, one that shouldnt be replicated over future generations. Without children to inherit his evil nature, she hoped that it would die with him. She cursed the day of their marriage and rejoiced (covertly) that it had never given rise to the fruit of offspring!
Jennifers wedding had filled the girls thoughts lately and had left little room for anything else. For Jennifer and her female contemporaries, the wedding ceremony was the single grand event in their lives. By custom, long months of waiting preceded the actual ceremony and consummation. It was a time of joy and anticipation and anxiety incomparable to any other occasion.
Only the knowledge that Jennifer would leave Lord Anthonys radius of evil influence comforted Lady Claire in her sadness. The girl would have a chance to live among honorable men with values and standards that far exceeded his. At Castle Percival, Jennifers children would grow to be physically strong, morally healthy adults. Were they to mature under Lord Anthonys guidance, the outcome was much more doubtfuland frightening to Lady Claire.
Lady Claire had known the Percival family before she came to Castle Downing. She had always loved and admired them. Since her arrival here, Lord Anthony had forbidden her to contact them or any of her other friends until it was time to choose a husband for Jennifer. He used Lady Claires friendship with the Percivals to promote Jennifers betrothal to their eldest son. Because the Percivals lived far to the north, Jennifer had not met her future husband. Lady Claire hadnt met him either, but she trusted that the young Percival lord would have the gentlemanly qualities of kindness, courtesy and sensitivity that her husband sorely lacked.
Lord Anthonys fingers squeezed painfully into Lady Claires flesh as he increased the pressure of his grip on her arm. "Ill go with you on your stroll this evening," he declared as he snatched the candle from its perch on the mantle.
"But, Lord Husband, you are so busy! I cannot possibly expect you to waste precious moments on such nonsense! I appreciate your kind offer, but you do not need to be concerned with me. Really, I enjoy being alone at this hour," she protested in vain. He raised his hand as if to strike her again. Instinctively, she flinched.
Jerking her toward the door, he said, "So, woman, you still dare to balk my will!"
She reached for her long-fringed woolen shawl, but he opened the door and wrenched her through before her fingers reached it.
"Leave your wrap! You wont need it, my dear wife," he said pointedly.
Her fear of him intensified. He habitually ignored her unless he wanted to invade her bed. So, she wondered, why had he volunteered suddenly to share a private moment with her? How blatantly uncharacteristic of him to squander his time enjoying the view from the top of the castle! Why now? Whyher thoughts stopped midway between a question and a mental shriek.
She had no hope of freeing her arm from his grasp. He had worked hard in his youth, and he trained daily in the arts of personal combat. His extraordinary muscular massthe symmetrical ripple of his rock-hard abdomen below bulging pectorals, thighs the size and nearly the firmness of tree trunks and calves to matchall was well-supported by a large skeletal frame. His deep chest tapered to a trim waist. Outlined by a short neatly trimmed auburn beard that complimented the color of his eyes, his face was as outstandingly attractive as the rest of his body. He carried his firm bulk with grace and balance. His posture expressed his pride. An aura of confidence surrounded him. He moved with the vitality of a man in excellent health, and the passing years hadnt detracted from but rather added to the lords masculine perfection. He could have been the statue of a Greek god, freed from its pedestal and converted to flesh from cold chiseled stone.
Lady Claire thought, If only the inner man had half the beauty of the outer shell, my husband would be quite a prize for any woman. The look of him had thrilled her at first sight. Regrettably, she had soon discovered what potent evil festered inside the man. A malignant spiritual consumption blotted his soul, a soul as decayed as his body was sound. That inner rot had utterly squelched any sexual desire his appearance had aroused in her at the beginning.
A tear slipped down her cheek and glistened on her bosom. While she panted to maintain the rapid pace Lord Anthony had set, she grieved for the nurturing and the love she had been denied by this unwholesome union. He had stolen from her all hope of marital joy. In its place, he had imprisoned her spirit in a fearsome void and left her clutching the tattered remnants of dreams that had fled.
Away from her bedchamber, the halls and drafty stairwells leading to the tower were deserted. Their footsteps echoed eerily from the smooth stone. Those ghostly sounds were the only ones other than the swish of her skirt on the floor and the creak of his leather-laced vest. Nothing else moved or breathed. The tiny candle didnt penetrate very far into the overpowering black shadows of the windowless inner passage. Its compact circle of light only made the surrounding gloom more oppressive.
That evening, Lady Claire wished that one servant, one pair of snooping eyes would see what was happening to her. The seclusion she usually welcomed had become her enemy. She glanced at her husband. In his firm brow and unwavering forward gaze, she read her death sentence. She knew, then, that her walk with him on the tower would be her last on Earth.
Desperately, she looked around for help! No one was near. Her heart chilled. Even if someone noticed her situation, they wouldnt dare to intercede. The lord of a castle also held the power of law in a society that hadnt yet adopted a uniform legal code. Completely at his mercy, she was alone in her plight.
The lord continued at a rapid pace. They climbed ever higher up the dusty, winding stairs. With her close beside him, he kept a firm hold on the woman. He wouldnt give her an opportunity to pull away from him and thwart his awful scheme.
A cool brisk wind swept over them when he opened the door to the outer walkway. Instantly, it snuffed the candle flame.
The last rays of light splashed crimson among the lusty plume-shaped clouds that burned against a backdrop of purple sky. Like a widely spread feathered fan originating at the point where two hills touched and cradled the setting sun, the bright mass flowed above them and nearly reached the eastern horizon. That same red hue flooded the open circular floor of the tower. Surrounded by the notched battlements, the tower became an amphitheater complete with actors poised for the final scene of a tragic play. The stage was ready. It lacked only an audience to perfect the flawlessly dramatic set.
In the red glow, Lord Anthony closed the door and released his wife. He knew that she couldnt escape now. She stood quietly, but he saw the pale cast of her face. She looked like the white marble statue of some pathetic female martyr saint glorified by the spineless Christian priests whose oddly foreign religion Lady Claire had so eagerly accepted. The dread in her eyes betrayed her. She knew that her death was imminent, as surely as if she could see the Grim Reaper in his somber death robes reaching out with his skeletal hands to drag her soul to the afterworld. He noted the quickness of the little pulse just under the exquisitely delicate whiteness of her slender neck.
He smiled malevolently. How deliciously insightful of the woman to have guessed that he was going to murder her! Depriving people of the thing most precious to themtheir pathetically mundane worthless livesalways gave him a sense of power, but the fiery intoxication of a swift attack against an unsuspecting target wasnt the best thrill. No, not at all. It didnt compare with creating the maximum terror in a fully aware victim before the kill.
The quick kill invigorated him. It stimulated a strong internal response, a feeling more akin to anger than any other emotion. Anger ruled him. It was his lord and the master of his soul. It permeated his life like thick smoke gave its odor to meat in the smokehouse. For him, rage was the only intense emotion he had ever known.
As a child, he had bullied all the other boys and girls. As an adult, he had never suffered defeat. He had no personal experience of sadness or joy, fear or love. He was almost able to grasp other emotions second-hand through his victimsalmost but not quite. If he had been able to feel what they felt, sense what they sensed, he might have developed empathy, but their fear didnt move him to pity. He craved seeing the terror in their eyes as an addict craves the object of his addiction.
He had no qualms about destroying a life. He felt no remorse. He didnt hold to any religious beliefs that regarded the act of murder as a sin. In truth, he accepted no reason to regret killing a creature whose eventual and unavoidable fate was death any way he looked at it.
Death was unavoidable. More than that, it was useful. He had taken Castle Downing and his title by slaying its former lord, a man who would have regretted trusting the captain of his personal guard if he had lived long enough to discover his error. A dagger plunged into his heart in the middle of the night as he slept had ended his rule, and Anthony the soldier assumed the position of Lord Anthony the nobleman who had control of the castle, wealth, land and the peasants who worked it. Lord Anthony was convinced that death was an acceptable way to transfer ownership permanently. It also guaranteed secrecy, as it would in the case of his wife.
Knowing that she had only moments to live, Lady Claire used what time was left to express her hatred of the man. She had nothing to gain from submission. She had nothing further to lose by impertinence. Release from the invisible chains of his intimidation inspired a surge of courage and a burst of freedom! In an instant, her fear of her husband evaporated!
"I loathe you, Anthony," she said in a strong voice that did not quiver. "Your stolen title has not improved you. You are still the lowborn flawed brat that your unfortunate mother birthed. Even if your title meant something, decent men would still ridicule you. They see you as you area despicable excuse for a nobleman! I have hated you since our first night together! I will go to my death with scars on my body and in my soul. Some are from the beatings I suffered at your hands, but others give witness to the perversity of your unique style of lovemaking. Frankly, I never saw much difference between them. Pain is pain, and torment is torment, Anthony. Putting another name to it does not change its nature."
Lord Anthony scowled and started to speak, but Lady Claire didnt give him a chance.
"Every time you touched me, you seemed determined to purge yourself of the resentment you felt toward all people of noble birth. I detest you beyond words! I would have been happier married to a poor but honorable man who smelled of sheep and made an honest living from the land than I have been with youyou and your stolen jewels, you and your pilfered title, you and the tainted bounty you squeezed from the sweat of your peasants! Of all lords, you should have dealt fairly with the common people. You came from the same stock! Call yourself what you wish, Anthony, but a swine with a lordly title remains a swine! An empty name cannot change his nature!"
Breathless and shaking from the rush of words and strong emotion, she paused, but her eyes remained firmlyyes, even boldly!unwaveringly staring into his for the first time. Her pale cheeks had a glow that had been absent since she came to Castle Downing. The outpouring of words that she had held inside for so, so many years had left a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled with pride. Pride? Oh, she had forgotten how that felt! He would not take it away from her again! She could not stop him from taking her life, but she would not allow him to take her pride!
He heated when she said his name without the title, Lord. He flared when she mentioned the humble circumstances of his birth. When she called his title meaningless, Lord Anthony burst into an inferno of rage! That look of defiance on her face enraged him even more.
In reply, he bellowed, "You dare to call my title worthless? I killed for the privilege of joining the elite social ranks! How did you earn your social stature? Your title and rank came to you through circumstances of birth over which you had no control. You have done nothing to deserve your station in life!"
He stepped closer to her and shouted in her face, "And what about your ancestors? Didnt they fight and kill for the right to raise themselves above the majority? There was no division of noble from common until they invented that system. By force, your people reserved rights for themselves which they denied to everyone else. The exalted nobility crushed the common people into submission! They gleaned their wealth from the labors of commoners, and they ruled those people with steel and hemp. They killed my father! Your people hanged him for refusing to give up an unfair percentage of his crop to help fill the masters granary while his own family starved! Do you call that just? Do you call that noble? Your ancestors quest for nobility was no more honorable than mine!"
Irate, he pushed her toward the low stonework wall that encircled the tower. Sarcastically, he asked her, "Perhaps, instead of a shepherd, you would have preferred a gardener with dirt under his nails and breath that reeked of cheap wine?"
Past caring about his unpredictable response, Lady Claire straightened her shoulders. She would vindicate herself for all the years she had bent to the will of that false lord! She snarled in reply, "Better dirt under the nails than blood! God will punish you for the misery of my life, Anthony, and for my death, even if no other person witnesses this murder! I will not struggle, and I will not cry out. The Almighty Lord God has already heard my screams night after night. He has seen my torment. You may sidestep Mans rules, but the judgement of God, the Almighty, will find you no matter where you try to hide. He has prepared a berth in Hell for you, and I pray that He grants me the pleasure of hearing you shriek in agony as your immortal soul burns in that evil place through Eternity!"
Lord Anthony wasnt impressed by her impassioned outburst, nor did he take her curse seriously. He looked at her with contrived sympathy. "Poor Lady Claire. Im the nearest thing to a deity that you will ever meet, so feast your eyes on me while you can. Think, fool! Would a loving god allow me success and power at the expense of helpless weaklings like yourself? Im afraid that you would find such a being with infinite power to be as ruthless as I am. Otherwise, how would this god attain supreme rank among the other powerful spirits?"
"Blasphemy," Lady Claire whispered incredulously.
"How can I blaspheme what doesnt exist, fool? Death is the end. It is not a beginning. It is final," he gloated. "Soon, you will know this."
"I welcome death no matter what its nature," she said defiantly. "If I had had the courage, I probably would have flung myself off this tower years ago. With Jennifer gone, I have no reason to choose life over death. You cannot imagine the pleasure I get from knowing this: the next time you touch me shall be the last time I will feel your obscene hands on my body!"
Lord Anthonys expression turned vicious. He wanted to humiliate her with action as she had humbled him with words. Throwing his arms tightly around her, he kissed her savagely while staring into her eyes. The hatred he saw ruined the satisfaction he hoped to get from violating her forcefully one last time. With a loud roar, he shoved her over the wall. Coldly, dispassionately, he watched her drop. Her skirts fluttered and twisted about her silent form until the hard ground at the base of the wall abruptly stopped her momentum.
His face twisted into a smile, but that just as quickly degenerated into a frown. What was that? He leaned over the wall and strained to see into the gloom of its shadow. Movement! In the dimming light, in the shadow, he saw Master Gardener Gerald looking up at him. Grinding his teeth in anger, Lord Anthony cursed as the man walked slowly toward the broken still body of the dead Lady Claire.